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'These Eames archives are wonderful – akin to a silent movie acquiring a soundtrack'

An Eames Anthology compiles articles, notes, speeches, interviews, film scripts and letters to give a valuable and rare insight into the minds of Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames didn’t have much time for words. Their furniture, short films and exhibitions spoke for themselves in the eloquence of forms, imagery and skilful editing. Everything was pared down to its essentials with a minimum of commentary. The best of their work in the three postwar decades is in everyday use in homes, offices and airports.

Iconic images of their work are embedded in popular consciousness, from the rosewood and leather executive chair to the Mondrianesque geometries of their prefabricated house. Design aficionados will recall hundreds more – from the moulded plywood splint, which saved thousands of wounded legs from amputation and is now a decorative object, to the giddy delights of Powers of Ten, a short film, which explores multiples of scale – large and small – from the outer reaches of the universe to the core of an atom.

‘The great revelation of the past 30 years is not the submission of Ray but the unacknowledged contribution of their talented team’

Long before the digital age, the Eames Office understood the potential of the computer and explained its workings in animated shorts for IBM. Its long-vanished studio in Venice has achieved legendary status, and Eames’ protegés have extended the influence Charles and Ray exerted on other designers.

Everyone agrees they were taciturn and publicity shy – they would have hated being put on display as celebrities – and were doers, not talkers. The elves who slaved long hours in their workshop recall that they communicated their feelings in code, so the design process was prolonged until every alternative had been explored. Only then would Charles and Ray nod their approval and authorise production.

This emphasis on visual communication makes An Eames Anthology a wonderful discovery, as though a silent movie had acquired a soundtrack. Daniel Ostroff has combed the Eames Archives at the Library of Congress to unearth long-forgotten articles, interviews, letters and speeches, even film scripts. Most are by Charles (which provoked one feminist, shocked that Ray had far fewer entries in the index, to launch on an extended rant in lieu of a review) but this is hardly surprising to anyone who knew them and the Mad Men era in which they flourished. 

Eames_house_building_magazine

The Eames House - Case Study House #8 - one of roughly two dozen homes built as part of The Case Study House Program on the front cover of Architectural Forum 93, no 3 (September 1950). Cover photograph by Julius Shulman. Source: Yale University Publishing

Charles was a forceful personality; Ray was, by nature, deferential, although she was fiercely protective of their legacy and contributed much to their joint efforts. At the time, everyone assumed Charles would be the voice of the studio, and the great revelation of the past 30 years is not the submission of Ray but the unacknowledged contribution of their talented team. Like Craig Ellwood, the Eameses were arbiters of taste and founts of ideas, who relied on skilled professionals to realise their concepts.

It’s hard to review this extraordinary compilation without quoting line after line of sharp humor and brilliant insights. The best of them are as relevant today as when they were made. In a 1949 lecture at the University of Southern California, Charles remarked: “I understand that the Board of Regents have passed rulings that the architecture of this university shall be in the Mid-Mediterranean Romanesque style. What such a group of men have in mind making such decisions I certainly cannot tell. I am sure their motives were not vicious, and probably their decisions were made because it was the line of least resistance.’ USC has moved on since then: its latest addition is a polite exercise in Collegiate Gothic.

‘Charles’ notes should be memorised by every student of design. He extols the value of constraints and the obligation to serve human needs. It’s all about practice; not a word on theory.’

Charles writes to John Houseman, the producer of MGM’s 1954 feature Executive Suite, offering a local source for ‘the kind of watered-down clichéd modern merchandise’ needed to evoke a Grand Rapids furniture factory. He describes the evolution of the design of the classic moulded plywood chair for a TV show, and later for a short film – and his notes should be memorised by every student of design. He extols the value of constraints and the obligation to serve human needs. It’s all about practice; not a word on theory.

In the late 1950s, an era of DayGlo dreamboats loaded with chrome, Charles wrote to company chairman Henry Ford II, urging him to make a plain black convertible with a minimum of advertising and symbols. There is no record of a response. 

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Aluminum Solar Energy Tow designed and photographed for the Alcoa Collection by Charles Eames, Alcoa Aluminum advertisement, Life magazine, 1959. Page 191, 1950-1959. Source: Yale University Publishing

Other letters evoke the confidence of a team that knew exactly what it was doing. Commissioned to create Glimpses of the USA, a multi-screen film that would be shown in the US Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, Charles and Ray worked in secrecy, with no interference from bureaucrats. They hand-carried seven reels of film from the lab to the first screening. The presentation was flawless, dazzling Nikita Khrushchev and two million other Russians over the next six weeks; their narration was a model of spare understatement, barely a paragraph long on the page.

The audience expected more of the heavy-handed propaganda it was used to; instead it got a seductive, seemingly off-hand portrait of middle-class American life. At the end, every screen shows the same image – of a forget-me-not, a flower the Russians love. That was certainly one of Ray’s contributions: an intuitive gesture of friendship that no words could have improved.

‘Charles was uncomfortable with the “designer” label and preferred to think of himself as an architect, analysing problems and devising solutions’

Charles liked to pose as a simple country boy. ‘I think I am somewhat of a rube myself,’ he told an interviewer. He was uncomfortable with the ‘designer’ label and preferred to think of himself as an architect, analysing problems and devising solutions. ‘I don’t believe in this “gifted few” concept, just in people doing things they are really interested in doing,’ he declared. ‘They have a way of getting good at whatever it is.’ 

A contradiction emerges in these texts: between the easy-going, down-to-earth public persona and the demanding professional who settled for nothing less than perfection. ‘After you’ve made one multiple-image show, you’re like a little boy who has been given a hammer – everything he encounters needs hammering!’ he commented, following the success in Moscow. To their credit, the Eameses never repeated themselves.

Eames_Little_glass_locomotive

Production stills of “the little glass locomotive” from the first frames of “Toccata for Toy Trains.” ; Color photographs of Charles and Ray Eames in the studio during the making of the film, and one additional still from the film. Source: Yale University Press

An Eames Anthology

Authors: Charles Eames, Ray Eames and Daniel Ostroff

Publisher: Yale University Press

Lead Image: Provided by Yale University Press

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